If you are as passionate about ballet as we are, you will love all of these great films.
Ballet is all around us, from our TVs to books, from paintings to fashion, so we soak it in wherever we can.
We included only one documentary (we couldn’t miss it), as this genre is trendy in the ballet world and requires a separate list.
It still amazes us how different these movies are. However, all of it describes our favorite art form and the complicity of the dancer. While we are stuck at home keeping our social distance, while theatres, ballet companies, and schools are closed, let’s all dive into this beautiful world of ballet through the language of film.
1. THE TURNING POINT
This is a story of two women whose lives are dedicated to ballet.
This 1977 classic featuring Shirley MacLaine and the legendary and amazing Mikhail Baryshnikov, examines the conflict between family and career, envy, aging, and love.
11 Oscar nominations, box-office success, and grateful generations of fans.
2. BALLETS RUSSES
“Ballet Russes” is a fascinating documentary about one of the world’s most iconic companies, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
From 1909 to 1929, the Ballets Russes traveled the globe, becoming one of the most famous ballet troupes in the world. They collaborated with painters and filmmakers and set new standards for artistry in dance production.
Ballets Russes maps the company’s Diaghilev-era beginnings in turn-of-the-century Paris–when artists such as Nijinsky, Balanchine, Picasso, Miró, Matisse, and Stravinsky united in an unparalleled collaboration.
3. CENTER STAGE
It is hard to believe that Center Stage celebrated its 20th anniversary in May 2020. What was intended to be a small film, teen-romance genre movie with a modest budget ($18, which is modest in Hollywood terms) became a cult classic that has been watched countless times by dance lovers. Tens of thousands of new ballet students lined up to entry exams.
The stars of American Ballet Theatre, dancers Ethan Stiefel, Sascha Radetsky, and Julie Kent became movie stars. It was a first film for Amanda Schull and Zoe Saldana. Both of them have gone on to great success after the film’s release.
4. MAO’S LAST DANCER
Based on a true story, Mao’s Last Dancer chronicles Li’s journey and the struggle for his artistic soul from the day as an 11-year-old boy when he is hand-picked by the government to study ballet in Beijing.
It is 1972, towards the end of Mao Zedong’s era and the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. After participating in an exchange program with Houston Ballet, Li falls in love with an American dancer, changing his life forever.
5. BLACK SWAN
“Black Swan” is a masterpiece by Darren Aronofsky, starring ex-ballet dancer Natalie Portman.
The ballet is hard, but the mindset of the dancer is the real stress inducer. Even though it seems like madness, we all can relate to it one way or another.
Interestingly enough, this film, out of all, introduced a lot of people to the world of ballet for the very first time.
6. THE WHITE CROW
Inspired by the book Rudolf Nureyev: The Life by Julie Kavanagh, it chronicles the life and dance career of the legendary ballet dancer.
Young Rudolf Nureyev becomes a top ballet dancer in Russia, but a life-changing visit to Paris soon makes him seek asylum in France. The title refers to his childhood moniker of white crow (with a somewhat similar meaning to “black sheep” in English) because he was unusual.
7. WHITE NIGHTS
Starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and tap legend Gregory Hines, White Nights grossed over $42 million at the box office upon release in 1985.
Baryshnikov plays Kolya Radchenko, a Soviet dancer who has defected from the USSR. When he’s injured after his flight to Japan makes a rough emergency landing in Siberia, he’s recognized by the KGB and forced to stay behind. Hines plays the expatriate American tap dancer tasked with keeping an eye on him. The movie opens with Baryshnikov performing Roland Petit’s Le Jeune Homme et La Mort and includes original choreography by Twyla Tharp.
8. BILLY ELLIOT
Before it became a hit musical, Billy Elliot was a hit film.
The 2000 British movie follows an 11-year-old working-class ballet student as he grapples with the bullying and stereotypes that come with being a boy dancer.
While there aren’t any show tunes in the movie version, there’s a lot of adorable footage of young Billy (played by actor Jamie Bell) getting a handle on his ballet technique and a scene from Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake.
GIRL tells the story of 15-year-old Lara, who wants to become a ballerina, with classical training for female dancers.
Lara is accepted in a ballet school, and her dream seems closer than ever. But there is one problem: Lara was born into the body of a boy. A body that she will push to its limits for her to succeed.
The film is inspired by the journey of Belgian dancer Nora Monsecour.
10. THE RED SHOES
The most classic ballet movie of them all, The Red Shoes, follows budding star Vicky Page, torn between her need to dance and her love for a young composer. No surprise, that upon release, The Red Shoes received critical acclaim, especially in the United States, where it received a total of five Academy Award nominations. It also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score and was named one of the Top 10 Films of the Year by the National Board of Review.
British ballerina Moira Shearer stars as Vicky, and the 1948 film includes the 15-minute “Red Shoes Ballet” choreographed by Robert Helpmann and featuring genius Léonid Massine. The majority of the cast were professional dancers.
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We love to dance. We also love to read. Mostly about dance, of course.
Besides, these long days spent at home are just begging to be spent neck-deep in a pile of good books.
Whether you’re looking for inspiration for the upcoming year’s seasons or missing the energy and beauty of ballet you’d get from your theatre seat, or just trying to brush up on your dance history; you can never go wrong with an excellent book on ballet. There are plenty of great ones, but we managed to pick 5 of our absolute favorite.
1. “Marius Petipa: The Emperor’s Ballet Master” by Nadine Meisner
One of the most famous ballet choreographers of all time, Marius Petipa, created works that are now the fundament of every ballet company’s repertoire. Performances of Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty draw large audiences to theatres and inspire new generations of dancers, as does The Nutcracker (which is considered to be the most famous ballet of all) during the winter holidays. These great three works created by Marius Petipa are not all. The entertaining Don Quixote and exotic La Bayadere are also considered classic and very popular. Altogether, these ballets have shaped the defining style of twentieth-century dance. This book is one of its kind – it is the first biography in English of this monumental figure of ballet history. It covers the choreographer’s life and works in full within the context of remarkable historical and political surroundings.
2. “Bolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian Ballet from the Rule of the Tsars to Today” by Simon Morrison
In this “incredibly rich” (New York Times) definitive history of the Bolshoi Ballet, visionary performances onstage compete with political machinations backstage.
A critical triumph, Simon Morrison’s “sweeping and authoritative” (Guardian) work, Bolshoi Confidential, details the Bolshoi Ballet’s magnificent history from its earliest tumults to recent scandals. On January 17, 2013, a hooded assailant hurled acid into the face of the artistic director, making international headlines. A lead soloist, enraged by institutional power struggles, later confessed to masterminding the crime. Morrison gives the shocking violence context, describing the ballet as a crucible of art and politics beginning with the disreputable inception of the theater in 1776, through the era of imperial rule, the chaos of revolution, the oppressive Soviet years, and the Bolshoi’s recent $680 million renovations. Although it is full of provocative details, our love for the mastership and the highest level of professionalism of the Bolshoi Theatre is undoubtful.
3. “Apollo’s Angels” by Jennifer Homans
This National bestseller was named one of the best books of the year by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle book review.
For more than 400 years, the art of ballet has stood at the center of Western civilization. Its traditions serve as a record of our past. Richly illustrated and beautifully told, Apollo’s Angels—the first cultural history of ballet ever written—is groundbreaking work. From ballet’s origins in the Renaissance and the codification of its basic steps and positions under France’s Louis XIV (himself an avid dancer), the art form wound its way through Europe’s courts, from Paris and Milan to Vienna and St. Petersburg. In the twentieth century, émigré dancers taught their art to a generation in the United States and Western Europe, setting off a new and radical transformation of dance. Jennifer Homans, a historian, critic, and professional ballerina, wields a knowledge of dance born of dedicated practice. Her admiration and love for the ballet, as Entertainment Weekly notes, brings “a dancer’s grace and sure-footed agility to the page.”
4. Perpetual Motion by Otis Stuart
There have been many books written about this idol of the ballet world, Rudolf Nuriev, but the “Perpetual Motion” by Otis Stuart is our favorite one. It is by far the most sincere. A revealing portrait of a legendary ballet performer discusses his celebrated defection in 1961, his struggles as a product of Stalinist Russia, his partnership with Dame Margot Fonteyn, and his battle with AIDS. With his electrifying leaps and volatile personality—both onstage and off—Rudolf Nureyev changed the role of the male ballet dancer forever. A star from the moment of his celebrated defection in 1961, Nureyev was an instant sensation in the dance world. In later years, well past his peak, Nureyev led a succession of international dance ensembles across the world’s stages. At an age when most dancers have long retired, Nureyev continued performing because, as Otis Stuart tells us, for Nureyev, to dance was to live.
5. A body of Work: Dancing to the Edge and Back by David Hallberg
The amazing and dazzling David Hallberg, who recently became the renowned Australian ballet’s artistic director, has been our inspiration for a while. He was the first American to join the Bolshoi Ballet as a principal dancer. The New Yorker described David as “the most exciting male dancer in the western world.”
This book is his look at his own artistic life—up to the moment he returns to the stage after a devastating injury that almost cost him his career.
Hallberg’s “moving and intelligent” (Daniel Mendelsohn) memoir dives deep into life as an artist. He wrestles with ego, pushes the limits of his body, and searches for ecstatic perfection and fulfillment as one of the world’s most acclaimed ballet dancers.
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